"An Old-World Radiance ": Roberts'
Orion and Other Poems

by L.R. Early


The centenary of one of the key events in our literary history has passed without notice: the appearance in autumn, 1880, of Charles G.D. Roberts' Orion and Other Poems. The volume has been long celebrated as inaugurating the first distinguished era in our literature and supporting Roberts' title as "the Father of Canadian Poetry." As everyone knows, its prestige is due in large measure to Archibald Lampman's account of its effect upon him when, as an undergraduate at Trinity College in Toronto, he stayed up reading a borrowed copy all one night in the spring of 1881.1  For Lampman, Orion demonstrated with electrifying power the ability of Canadians to write authentic poetry. His tribute, first published in 1925, has given the book almost mythic significance in our literary history, although others before him had praised Orion in similar if less memorable terms. The unsigned notice in the leading Canadian review of 1880 had urged: "does not the publication of such a book as this by Mr. Roberts, of New Brunswick, justify us in auguring good things of the spread of a genuine literary spirit in Canada? Here is a book of which any literature might be proud."2   This view of Orion's significance has been echoed for a hundred years, but seldom accompanied by more than cursory remarks on its contents. In part this is because twentieth-century critics depreciated Orion in favour of Roberts' later work; largely it is because few poems from the volume were printed in the selections made by Roberts and his later editors. Today Orion is probably the most famous unread book in Canadian literature. The publication of the first complete edition of Roberts' poetry may stimulate interest in many of his lesser-known pieces, including his early work.3  In any case, his first volume deserves closer attention than it has had, as much for its unexamined merits as for its ambiguous reputation.

    Ambiguous opinion about Roberts' debut is, in fact, evident in Lampman's recollection of his discovery of Orion. He describes in a celebrated passage his renovated vision when, after his night of reading, he went out at dawn into the college grounds:

The air, I remember, was full of the odour and cool sunshine of the spring morning. The dew was thick upon the grass. All the birds of our Maytime seemed to be singing in the oaks, and there were even a few adder-tongues and trilliums still blossoming on the slope of the little ravine. But everything was transfigured for me beyond description, bathed in an old-world radiance of beauty [by] the magic of the lines that were sounding in my ears, those divine verses, as they seemed to me, with their Tennyson-like richness and strange, earth-loving, Greekish flavour. I have never forgotten that morning, and its influence has always remained with me.

Here Lampman records an indispensable moment in our literature, splendidly fusing his sense of a new-world dawn in Canadian poetry with his awareness of its deep sources in the European tradition. But what he says next — dryly, succinctly — is almost never quoted:

I am now able to discuss Mr. Roberts's deficiencies. I know that he lacks tenderness, variety, elasticity, and that he never approaches the nobler attitudes of feeling; yet that early work of his has a special and mysterious charm for me — and it is indeed excellent, of an astonishing gift in workmanship, with passages here and there which in their way are almost unsurpassable.

Lampman's mixed feelings about Roberts' achievement persist throughout his discussion in a tangle of qualifications too complex to unravel here. The point I wish to make is that Roberts became similarly ambivalent about his youthful work. In his first selected Poems (1901, 1907), he retained about half of Orion, including the complete title poem. In his selection of 1936, however, he severely reduced this proportion, included only excerpts from "Orion," and explained that he wished "to show the whole range of my work in verse, from the earliest derivative stuff, such as the 'Ode to Drowsihood' and the extracts from 'Orion,' written in my teens, up to'Westcock Hill'."4  His phrase is harsh, but to my mind tacitly softened by the fact that his selection, arranged by genre, concludes with a section of "Classical Poems" which puts the extracts from "Orion" at the very end, in the place of honour.

     A few readers have shared with Lampman and Roberts the feeling that Orion and Other Poems, for all its "derivative stuff," does retain "a special and mysterious charm." Most twentieth-century critics, however, have seen little substantial value in it. Some of the earlier ones regarded Roberts' mythological poems categorically as exercises in escapism — surely an inadequate understanding of myth, from a modern viewpoint.5 More recent critics have been willing to see some intrinsic merit in the volume but continue to regard its primary significance as historic or symbolic.6  Most comment has naturally focused upon the title poem which, if not a "gem of purest ray serene," as a very early admirer claimed, is certainly not "grandiose and empty," as a later critic charged.7 Only one critic, W.J. Keith, has offered anything resembling a detailed reading of the poem.8   A recurring feature of the response to "Orion," and to some of the "other poems" as well, has been a rather too casual attribution of influences on Roberts' style and subjects. Influences there are in plenty, but more rigour is needed to interpret their presence and show how they condition Roberts' practice. In short, the various and scattered criticism of Orion leaves much room for analysis of the key poems and their arrangement, for a study of their provenance, and for remarks on their significance in Roberts' oeuvre and in the poetry of his time.

     In my view the literary smoke surrounding Orion does have its origins in poetic fire. The more obvious exercises in technique and convention may lead us to overlook work of real accomplishment: in the best poems influences and conventions are turned to good account. Orion is a young man's book with the indivisible virtues and faults of youth, exuberance and excess. Indeed, most of the poetry was written during Roberts' undergraduate years from 1876 to 1879 at the University of New Brunswick, and some was published in magazines prior to Orion's appearance.9  It is by no means "undergraduate verse," however, and its precocity is surprising only by twentieth-century standards. Like Shelley, Tennyson, and Browning, Roberts very early developed a sense of his relation to poetic tradition, no doubt in part because he enjoyed the nourishment of a highly literate family and an exceptional education.10  He acknowledged a personal debt in dedicating Orion to his father, who had kindled his love of great poetry as a child.11  He indicated his conscious participation in the poetic tradition, as well as his self-confidence (if not presumption) by immediately sending copies to Tennyson, Arnold, Swinburne, Longfellow, Holmes, and Whitman. Arnold and Holmes, as we know, responded with letters of warm encouragement.12

    The epigraph in Greek opposite the title page of Orion is an invocation — 'O beloved Pan, and ye other gods of this place, grant to me to become beautiful within' — which introduces the classical note sustained through much of the book. Though Roberts was a sufficiently keen student to have acquired a genuine taste for the classics, his enthusiasm owed at least as much to the example of Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson as to his reading of Homer and Ovid at Fredericton Collegiate School and at University. The exaltation of beauty in his epigraph may well remind us of Keats, whose first book of poems included a dedicatory sonnet which regrets the spirit of an age "when under pleasant trees / Pan is no longer sought." Among a host of discernible influences upon these earliest poems by Roberts, Keats, as James Cappon saw, is by far the strongest.13 Near the beginning of Orion, the title poem recalls Endymion, towards the middle the odes "To Drowsihood" and "To Night" imitate Keats's great odes, and at the end the "Epistle to W. Bliss Carman" emulates the verse epistles of the English poet. Furthermore, the subjects of "Orion," "Ariadne," and "Memnon" may have been suggested to Roberts by his reading of Keats, who makes memorable references to all three mythological figures.14  Having made these observations, I would add that Roberts is very much in the mainstream of nineteenth-century poetry in falling under Keats's spell, as Tennyson, Arnold, and Rossetti did before him, and as Lampman did after. Keats's influence upon Roberts must be assessed, like that of other writers, on the basis of its effect in particular poems.

     The first lyric in Orion is "To the Spirit of Song." Printed in reduced type as another prefatory item, it is, like the epigraph, a conventional enough invocation. If the epigraph evokes Keats's shade, this poem recalls that other fountainhead of English Romantic Hellenism, Shelley. The unnamed "spirit" associated with the brilliance of morning, "intensest magic," and "the paths of heaven," is evidently Apollo, and inspiration is pictured as a trance which brings transcendence:

Surely I have felt the spell that lifts asunder
          Soul from body, when lips faint and thought is strong.15

Like the epigraph, these lines are rather too simple to express the view of poetry implicit in Orion as a whole. Two poems which appear near the middle of the book, "Ballad of the Poet's Thought" and "A Ballad of Three Mistresses," describe the poet in more complex terms as caught between his conflicting attachments to love, nature, society, and art. (It is little wonder that Arnold praised the former piece, which deals with the primary tensions in much of his own work.16) Ultimately Orion concludes with two poems which, I will argue, further qualify Roberts' view of poetry. His initial invocations to Pan and Apollo are appropriate to the Greek ambience which unquestionably dominates the volume, but which diminishes before countervailing forces as our reading proceeds.

    The renewed interest of nineteenth-century poets in Greek culture had three facets which it is useful to distinguish: Romantic Hellenism, which properly denotes a nostalgic regard for Greece as the fountainhead of Western values; the adaptation of classical meter and stanzas to English versification, notably by Tennyson and Swinburne; and the recourse to Greek myth as a potent source of symbolism and narrative design. All three concerns are represented in Orion and Other Poems, though the last remains of greatest interest in Roberts, as in his English predecessors.

    Orion showcases its mythological narratives, five of them if we count Roberts' long poem on Sir Launcelot. "Orion," "Ariadne," "Launcelot and the Four Queens," "Memnon," and "Sappho" occupy roughly half the pages in the book. They represent Roberts' participation in an enormously popular nineteenth-century fashion which stems primarily from Shelley and Keats. One has only to look at the Appendix to Douglas Bush's Mythology and Romantic Tradition to be daunted by the sheer number of poems on classical subjects undertaken by the great, the minor, and the mediocre writers of the era. Bush observes that "in the last third of the nineteenth century, as in the last decade of the sixteenth, a mythological poem was the first impulse of the aspirant who had an itch to write something."17   The scratchings in Roberts' volume are, however, worth looking at closely. While his efforts in the genre may seem conventional in relation to the parent literature, they are — as Lampman saw — originals in Canadian poetry, and the best ones renew the convention impressively. Though uneven in quality, "Orion" and the other mythological poems reflect a remarkable understanding by Roberts of his major precursors in the genre, as well as an ability to use both classical and nineteenth-century sources effectively. Furthermore, their arrangement reflects a crucial meaning in the volume considered as a whole.


It is difficult to identify sources for Roberts' highly selective treatment of the Orion myth. The principal classical accounts are Apollodorus, Library 1.4.3-5, and Parthenius, Love Romances 20; of course detailed information on the gigantic hunter was also available in such popular nineteenth-century handbooks as John Lempriere's Classical Dictionary and Thomas Bulfinch's Age of Fable. Roberts focuses sharply on two events: first, Orion's blinding by Œnopion when he claims the king's daughter Merope after ridding Chios of wild beasts; second, his ascent of the island's eastern heights, where the dawn-goddess Eos restores his sight and offers him her love. As W.J. Keith has pointed out, what Roberts excludes from his treatment is as significant as what he uses, for in ending with the union of Orion and Eos, and ignoring further eventualities — especially Artemis' deadly hostility — Roberts idealizes the gods and eliminates certain ambiguities in the original story.18

     There are surprisingly few poems about Orion amid the welter of nineteenth-century mythological verse, though there are numerous allusions to the myth. Longfellow wrote a short piece, "The Occultation of Orion" (1845), and Arnold glanced at the story in "Fragment of an 'Antigone"'(1849), but the only considerable treatment before Roberts' was Orion: An Epic Poem in Three Books (1843) by an early Victorian, Richard Hengist Horne. Though received enthusiastically by Poe, Meredith, and Elizabeth Barrett, and praised by a few twentieth-century scholars, Horne's "epic" is largely unread today.19  By 1874, however, it had gone through ten editions in England, Australia, and America, and was likely known to Roberts when he wrote his own "Orion." Their descriptions of Chios are certainly similar, though sunlit crags, dense forests, and echoing cataracts are stock imagery of the sublime everywhere in nineteenth-century art, and the parallels between the two poems are really less striking than their differences.20   Horne's Orion: An Epic Poem is a blank verse narrative of some three thousand lines with much more fully developed characters, plot, and action than Roberts' four hundred and sixty blank verses allow. The Englishman's treatment of the myth is discursive, ruminative, and didactic, where Roberts' is concentrated, elliptical, and intense. Horne's action encompasses weeks or months, using many more episodes of the Orion myth than does Roberts, whose action transpires during the passage of a single night from evening to dawn. Most significantly, the poets' interpretations of the myth are at odds. As Horne makes clear in a preface written for the ninth edition (1872), Orion: An Epic Poem was designed as an allegory of progress: its hero is "resolved to work as a really free agent to the utmost pitch of his powers for the good of his race. . . . He is the type of a Worker and a Builder for his fellow men."21  In Horne's version, Orion's love for Merope is mischievous in so far as it limits his involvement with humanity at large; his "higher" love for Eos renews his concern for the happiness of mankind, and the poem ends with his apotheosis as a model of human aspiration. The Friend of Man "whom death shall not destroy" becomes a Christlike figure promising an ultimate peace and happiness for the race. By contrast, Roberts' poem shows the futility of Orion's actions on behalf of his fellows and the glory of a love which removes him from their affairs.

     Roberts' "Orion" is typical of early Confederation poetry in its predominantly Romantic form. In attempting to express a vision of human experience in mythological terms, it recalls Endymion and Prometheus Unbound, though it is neither on the same scale nor of the same rank. It is closer in scale to the classical poems of Tennyson and Arnold but lacks their characteristic focus on a specific moral issue, usually of highly personal relevance. "Orion" more closely parallels the works of Keats and Shelley in a number of ways. Like their narratives, it reinterprets classical myth as a reflection of the timeless spiritual forces which condition human life, and it implies a certain sympathy with "pagan" values in reaction to the ascetic element in Christianity. Structurally it subordinates simple narration to its symbolic and philosophical dimensions. The Romantic mythological narrative is not so much a sequence of events as a series of places, or an orchestration of symbols.

     It is especially in its setting that "Orion" shows the "peculiar style of intense and comprehensive imagery" which Shelley noted as distinctive of Romantic poetry.22  The first thirty lines of "Orion" survey the rugged splendour of Chios. With its gorgeous imagery and stately cadence, this passage remains one of the few successful renderings of sublime landscape in Canadian poetry. Later writers such as Duncan Campbell Scott, E.J. Pratt, and Earle Birney will evoke the beauty and terror of nature, but only a few painters — pre-eminently Carr and Harris — continue to imbue it with supernatural feeling. Although the mountain domain of eternal snow, sunshine, and tempest is the familiar locus of the Romantic sublime, it is impressively recreated in the opening of "Orion." Roberts' landscape is charged with contraries: storm and calm, love and death, youth and age. The scene displays traces of a former cataclysm now resolved in sensuous, rich serenity, and thereby epitomizes the action which follows: Orion's agony and its remission. Of special note are the vivid sexual connotations in Roberts' picture of a regal sun's withdrawal from a languorous bay:

The sunset with its red and purple skirts
Hung softly o'er the bay, whose rippled breast
Flushed crimson, and the froth-streaks round the beach
Were glowing pink.     (20-23)

While eros was conventionally relegated to the sphere of the beautiful, its association here with the sublime is in keeping with Roberts' theme: the celebration of eros as itself sublime is his point in marrying a mortal to a deity.23  Two more features of the scene crucial to the poem's structure are the westward prospect and the setting sun. In the end Orion will turn his back on a humanity which is westwardly inclined in its subjection to mortality, and face the east which brings him to eternity in the embrace of Eos. The structural pivot, sunset / dawn, is appropriate to Roberts' theme of transcendence, consciousness transformed through a regenerated vision. This larger movement of the poem is anticipated in the induction by the vertical backwash which accompanies the sun's disappearance in the west: the ascent of light through "ragged scaurs and jagg'd ravines, until / It lay a splendor on the endless snow" (29-30). Finally, the investing of nature with human attributes through metaphors in this section introduces a persistent motif.

     The very density of "Orion"'s imagery threatens at times to obscure its meaning. Essentially, Roberts depicts four spheres of existence which variously mirror and interpenetrate one another: the natural world of elemental objects and forces, the animal realm, human society, and the divine.24  The natural and divine spheres are parallel in their beauty and order; the other two are chaotic and problematical. The distinctions among these four planes are most effectively registered in a complex of aural motifs. The sounds of elemental nature in the opening section and throughout the poem range from tumult to hushed calm, but always suggest beauty and power. The animal world is dissonant, full of roarings, splashings, howls, yelpings, bellows (91-97). The human speech of Œnopion and Orion can shape prayers but is more apt to utter curses; the "speech" attributed to landscape (10-11,15,63, 120-24, 400-404) suggests a harmony which contrasts with the commotion and deceit on the animal and human levels. Finally, the supernatural realm expresses itself in music. A subordinate motif which carries a similar range of meanings moves from the "laughing valley" of the opening lines (4) through Œnopion's sinister laughter (165, 217) and the laughter of sun (274) and sea (410), to the "mirth" of the supernatural beings who celebrate Orion's union with Eos at the poem's conclusion (440).

     The first hint of a human presence in the isle intrudes upon the sublime scenery of the opening: "the sands burned ruddy gold, / And footmarks crossing them lay sharp and black"(23-24). The ominous overtones here are later confirmed by the blackness associated with Œnopion and his deed, and by the stealthy footsteps which attend the atrocity (179, 201, 222).25  Man, as represented by Œnopion and Orion, is shown to contain both natural and animal forces, but to pervert them wilfully. Œnopion's "dark tresses made aware / Of coming winter by some autumn snows" link him with nature, while his eyes, which drink the "fiery sunset," link him with a sacrificial wolf whose "eyes, inflamed" glare hate upon his captors. This latter parallel underscores both the king's animal cruelty and his distinctively human duplicity. He is both a "royal priest" and a pitiless villain who betrays and maims his ally. It is this terribly mixed aspect of the human condition which Roberts recoils from in "Orion." Œnopion, who uses wine both as a sacrament and a treacherous drug, represents man's capacity to contain reverence and malice at once. This admixture of meanness and nobility reappears in relief when the king's henchman stoops over the unconscious Orion: "a slave / Beside the god-begotten" (204-5). Œnopion's reason for denying his daughter to Orion is left unclear by Roberts; hence his treachery seems more gratuitous and malign.26  Because there are few other humans in the poem, the king is the more repugnant as a representative of mankind. The only minor characters are the king's henchmen and later the camp of men who "wrought arms and forged the glowing bronze for war" (361). This rather dismal sample of humanity is only slightly mitigated by the king's torchbearer who shrinks from the blinding of Orion, and the guide who helps him climb the eastern heights of Chios.

     Unlike Horne's heroic Builder, Roberts' Orion is a simple if awesome giant whose innocence seems to precipitate his fall. If there is a central weakness in Roberts' poem, it is an unwarranted ambiguity about Orion which leaves us uncertain whether or not he is partly responsible for his agony. This question turns upon his identity as the Hunter. If anything might be cited to explain his suffering as in some sense deserved, it is his ruthless extermination of the animals in Chios. I think that Roberts intends this point but badly muddles it. On the one hand Orion is identified throughout the poem with the grand forces of elemental nature and described as "kingly" (363) like the beasts he slays (70), in ironic contrast to Œnopion's evil sovereignty. On the other hand he undertakes a wholesale slaughter at Œnopion's behest. In emphasizing Orion's "godlike" aspect when he appears bearing the skins of the slain animals, and in juxtaposing this entrance with the sacrifice of the wolf ("well-pleasing to Apollo"), Roberts implies approval of Orion's exploit. There are reasons, though, to think that we should not approve, and ought to regard the slaughter as a crime for which the giant's blinding, however reprehensible on Œnopion's part, is moral retribution. This view of the poem will depend largely on how we read Orion's long report of his deeds (85-131). I take it to be an unconscious self-indictment full of false assumptions and unintended irony. Having declared that the island is now empty of menacing beasts, the giant proclaims:

"Your maidens will not fear to quit by night
Their cottages to meet their shepherd lads;
And these shall leave safe flocks, and have no need
Of blazing fagots. Nor without some toils
Are these things so. . . .
                            But the pledge
And surety of a blissful harborage
Whither through buffets rude I needs must fare,
Made heavy labors light."     (98-107)

As events prove, Orion is utterly mistaken in hoping to establish Arcadia through eliminating animal predation. Human wickedness remains, and human notions of "honor" (135) are subverted by malice and vengefulness. Orion's account of heroic toils undertaken in prospect of a blissful recompence employs the voyage metaphor typical of romance, but in fact the poem turns into an abortive quest-narrative. Furthermore, Orion describes the harmony he felt with nature and the gods during his great hunt, but adds that he was troubled at night by "'phantoms . . . / Unfettered . . . / Fain to aghast me,'" which he ignored. And in the end he claims Merope that he "may drink deep draughts / Of Love's skilled mixing": another ironic metaphor, considering the drugged wine which shortly makes him vulnerable to Œnopion's cruelty.

     In addition to internal evidence for regarding Orion's hunt as a crime in Roberts' treatment of the myth, there is the evidence in Roberts' later work of his sympathy with the "kindred of the wild" and his revulsion from any wanton slaying of animals. More to the point, though, is the eventual remission of Orion's suffering through his union with the dawn-goddess, granted because he maintains reverence for the gods despite his massacre of their creatures and even in the midst of his anguish. There is more ambiguity here, in that Œnopion is also shown observing sacred rites near the beginning of the poem; however, the king is later referred to as "he of gods forgotten" by Nereids who grieve over the prostrate Hunter (242). Roberts may intend to discriminate between Orion's ignorant crime and Œnopion's coldblooded treachery, though this is not certain. The importance of Orion's reverence is stressed repeatedly, and it is possible to see the poem's ultimate theme expressed in the contrast between the giant's "heroism" and his reverence. His heroic action (of a perfectly traditional kind) is shown to be meaningless, while his reverence (an attitude rather than an action) issues in his apotheosis. In the end his transformation is achieved through love, the creative principle, in antithesis to his murderous proficiency in confederacy with Œnopion at the outset.

     Even before Orion wakes from his drugged sleep to discover his blindness, a counter-movement to the slaughter and deceit has begun, almost at the poem's mid-point, in the "sudden" melody of the Nereids, sea-nymphs who gather on the strand to mourn the giant's plight. Their apparition heralds a divine intercession in Orion's fate, a transcendence symbolized in the movement of their song's echoes up the island's heights (341-45), recalling the twilight which climbs the peaks near the beginning of the poem, and foreshadowing Orion's ascent of the eastward mountains at the end. The Nereids are not themselves divine, but embodiments of the beauty in nature which mirrors the gods. They express the universal sympathy of nature for the maimed giant and promise him succour, from "a skilfuller goddess than Circe" (289). Where Circe changed men to animals, Eos will elevate Orion to divinity.

     Upon waking to understand his injury, Orion curses the perpetrator and thirsts for vengeance. His imprecations, his dread lest his suffering be eternal, and his plea that Earth and Sea witness his woe, recall the lamentations of Prometheus at the beginning of Prometheus Unbound; like Shelley's hero, Orion will soon have his misery allayed. From the mountains the last echo of the Nereids' song urges him to ascend. As in most versions of the myth, the giant finds a guide to set upon his shoulder, who directs his way across the island to its eastern heights and leaves him there alone.27   This guide represents his final contact with humanity as he moves above the cultivated groves of men toward an elemental panorama like that pictured in the induction of the poem.

     Day breaks and its radiance restores Orion's vision, revealing a magnificent vista of sea, mountains, and sky — "but these he heeded not," for beside him, "veiled in a mist," appears the dawn-goddess:

                                                        His toils
Endured in vain, his great deeds wrought in vain,
His bitter pain, Œnopion's house accurst,
And even his sweet revenge, he recked not of;
But gave his heart up straightway unto love. (429-33)28

This is the climax of "Orion" and though it clarifies Roberts' theme in some ways, it also presents certain problems. The lines do effectively emphasize the basic contrast between a misconceived ideal of heroic action and a vision which transcends the ugliness and violence of human experience. For Orion the ordinary matrix of human life simply vanishes: time and society are eclipsed in an apocalypse brought about by love. The conclusion, an extravagant passage which rivals the richness of the opening lines, describes the progress of Eos and Orion across the water amid a festive throng of Nereids and sea-gods:

                                   And so they reached
Delos, and went together hand in hand
Up from the water and their company,
And the green wood received them out of sight.      (457-60)

Attended by Eos' chariot of fire the couple journey over water, through the air, arriving in the green world of an idyllic natural order. The conclusion thus brings together the four elements which Roberts has clustered at intervals throughout the poem (1-4, 109-11, 120-24, 270-79, 327-33, 387-98). Delos is a visionary realm which mirrors the natural world but perfects it, providing a suitable setting for the fulfilment of Orion's love.

     Our problem is understanding just what Roberts means by love. Evidently Eos embodies divine love in contrast to the earthly love of Merope and an intermediate kind represented in the Nereids. Earlier, when Orion claims Merope's hand, anticipating "sweet draughts / Of Love's skilled mixing," the implication is that she offers an oblivion like the drugged wine which he gets instead. And when the Nereids gather round the sightless giant, the narrator avers that "had he seen as grievous were his case, / Blinded with love and stricken with delight" (234-35). By contrast, the love of Eos renews Orion's vision. But if Roberts means to extend the long tradition in Western poetry by which divine love is symbolized in sexual terms, his meaning is inadadequately conveyed. Eos is described in extremely sensuous detail and her retreat with Orion to a green bower has rather the effect of a line of dots after an embrace in an old-fashioned novel, or of the fade-out in movies before the era of open sexuality.

     This problem in the poem's resolution is not without precedent, especially in the work which "Orion" really resembles more than any other. Keats's Endymion also affirms love as a release from the disorder of history, and ends with the vanishing of its hero and his goddess in a wood.29  Like Keats, Roberts is intent on celebrating an ideal love which transcends the finite condition of mortal relations but which nevertheless remains implicitly and powerfully erotic. And like Endymion, "Orion" is more confusing than compelling in its resolution. Such confusion should not, however, conceal from us Keats's and Roberts' participation in a major nineteenth-century poetic enterprise: the reaction to Milton's account of romantic love as contributing to the fall of man. English poets such as Shelley in Prometheus Unbound and Tennyson in The Princess also imply that romantic love may be the very principle of human redemption. And in Canada, following "Orion," two of Roberts' contemporaries treat much the same theme: Isabella Valancy Crawford in Malcolm's Katie and Archibald Lampman in "The Story of an Affinity." There are, in fact, echoes of Paradise Lost throughout "Orion," most significantly in the final lines when the lovers exit like Milton's couple, "hand in hand," but towards certain bliss rather than an uncertain exile.

     "Orion"'s relation to this nineteenth-century tradition justifies to a degree the "derivative" features which its critics have condemned. W.J. Keith has written that "it is difficult not to become aware of the stylistic influences of Tennyson, Milton, Shelley, Arnold, and Keats."30   While much of my discussion bears out this statement, I think the point to be made is that in "Orion" Roberts uses these stylistic devices capably, and largely succeeds in making of them a medium proper to his own purposes. His style becomes more than a patchwork of literary echoes because it develops internal resonance and coherence. Obviously "Orion" is by a young man saturated in the poetry of the major Romantics and Victorians. Just as obviously it is by a writer whose love of memorable language imparts wonderful energy to his own effort. "Orion" belongs to the tradition of sensuous mythological poetry which extends from Spencer and Milton through Keats and Tennyson, and is fully as creditable as Keat's or Tennyson's apprentice work. Roberts is clearly delighted by his discovery of poetic technique , as the flood of alliteration and assonance, anaphora and epistrophe in "Orion" demonstrates. My discussion of aural and visual motifs in the poem is by no means exhaustive. I would emphasize, however, the abundance of words related to vision and blindness, and note that the final word in the poem is "sight". I would also note Roberts' instinct for fine dramatic moments such as Orion's awakening upon the beach. Though there are problems in its presentation of theme, "Orion" amply repays attention to its structure, style, and meaning.


The second mythological narrative in Roberts' debut volume is much less successful. Unlike Orion, Ariadne was a favorite subject of poets and poetasters throughout the nineteenth century. The heroine abandoned on Naxos by an ungrateful Theseus during his return from Crete was generally sentimentalized as an emblem of wronged womanhood. This is not the case, however, in the most notable nineteenth-century version, Leigh Hunt's Bacchus and Ariadne (1819), which lightly recounts the tale, for its own sake, in fluent couplets. Roberts' description of Ariadne is probably indebted to Hunt, though it also draws upon the primary classical sources. The earliest of these, Catullus' Carmen 64, sets the scene of Ariadne's loneliness, picturing her loosened hair, the washing of waves upon her as she grieves at the water's edge, and cruelly indifferent winds — all details which recur in Roberts' poem, as does the Bacchic rout with its satyrs, cymbals, horns, and Evoe-chant. Ovid, Heroides 10, takes from Catullus such details as Ariadne's dishevelled hair and the adverse winds, and adds a moon which lights up the scene, as it does in Roberts' opening stanza. Roberts follows Hunt in describing Ariadne's confused awareness of the approaching Bacchantes, their noisy eruption from the woods into her presence, the god's imposition of order upon his followers, and Ariadne's happy response to his love.

     Perhaps such a close adherence to sources accounts for the stillborn quality of "Ariadne," which is by far the poorest of Roberts' mythological pieces. Like "Orion," the poem concerns the union of a betrayed mortal with a god. Once more the contrast between corrupt human relations, as represented by Theseus, and the divine order, identified with Bacchus, is clearly drawn, and Ariadne's ultimate bliss is pictured in idyllic terms which recall the resolution of the longer poem. Bacchus charges his bride to "forget the Past's dumb misery," and the final stanza takes a parting glance at the flawed human world. In "Ariadne," however, the theme is hardly more than an occasion for word-painting, and unfortunately the poem is weak even at this level. A pictorial narrative with minimal plot, it altogether lacks the technical brilliance of "Orion." The descriptive opening stanzas are filled with abstractions which make little impression, and the remainder largely taken up with Bacchus' windy speech, at best a cliched pastoral invitation. Roberts' Ariadne is a lifeless figure artfully posed, and his Bacchus a bore; the one fails as completely to provoke sympathy as the other to inspire wonder.

     The poem which follows is a different matter, in more ways than one. In "Launcelot and the Four Queens" Roberts resorts to Arthurian rather than classical mythology; the poem is, however, closely linked in theme to the other narratives. The story appears in the sixth book of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, which provides Roberts with a good deal of dialogue and imagery. His treatment and versification are Tennysonian, closer to the laureate's early work such as "Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere" and "The Lady of Shalott" than to the Idylls, and there are also echoes of Keats's "La Belle Dame" and "Eve of St. Agnes." In this case, however, Roberts is well in control of his sources. "Launcelot and the Four Queens" is one of the principal achievements of Orion, second only to the title poem in length, and more successfully executed. It also registers a crucial shift in the volume's poetic vision in turning from a myth of transcendence to a view of the world as beautiful but fallen and riddled with paradox. Again the plot involves the complications of eros and again the protagonist's deliverance is reflected in his heightened awareness of nature. But this time his deliverance is problematical, very far from suggesting anything like a divine marriage. The gods are conspicuous by their absence from a world where nature, her creatures, and human beings appear ambiguous and threatening, and where the supernatural appears to be malign.

     Following Malory closely, Roberts develops his plot rather more firmly than in "Orion ." Briefly, Launcelot is captured by four wicked queens who demand that he choose one as a lover, or die; faithful to Guinevere, he refuses, and is helped to escape by a maidservant on condition that he help her father in an approaching tournament. As in Roberts' other narratives in Orion, this plot is essentially a framework for modulations of symbolism and of tone. Roberts is more technically ambitious here than in any of his other early poems, and just avoids the effect of a tour de force. The narrative is divided into five Parts composed (but for the fourth) in tail rhyme stanzas of, successively, 6,7,5, and 8 lines; these sections vary metrically as well. The anomalous fourth Part is in double quatrains. Each Part is prefaced with an argument — the first a single line, the others quatrains — while at the end of Part 3 Launcelot delivers a song in yet another verse form. The whole, then, is an astonishing medley of songs and stanzas after the example of Tennyson's experiments in The Princess and Maud.

     The poem creates a wonderful atmosphere of sensuous luxuriance and subtle menace made keen through tight construction and a brisk tempo. The one-line argument to Part 1 — "Launcelot sleepeth under an apple-tree" — leaves little doubt about the archetypes Roberts will play upon. In contrast to the sublime panorama of "Orion" we are confronted with a landscape where creatures, vegetation, even the hour ("languid noon") are tinged with dubious moral significance. It is the landscape of enchantment, hinting everywhere at entrapment and captivity:

A robin on a branch above
Nodding by his dreaming love
            Whose four blue eggs are hatched not yet,
Winks, and watches unconcerned
A spider o'er the helm upturned
            Weaving his careful net.     (1.25-30)

The robin mates only to advance the reproductive cycle and can afford to be unconcerned. But against the vision of redemptive love in "Orion" and "Ariadne" Roberts focuses in "Launcelot" upon the sinister aspect of human sexuality — the dark knot of carnal knowledge and moral dislocation at the heart of Genesis and Paradise Lost. For men and women, we are reminded, sex has spiritual meanings beyond the instinctive mating and generation in the natural world, and this condition of being human colours our perception of things around us. Later when the captive Launcelot notices the beams of a young moon "that from the sun, her paramour / Yet walketh not aloof," it is as though the whole cosmos is implicated in amorous intrigue.

     As in Milton's treatment of the Genesis story, the central issue in "Launcelot and the Four Queens" is choice. Morgane le Fay, "enamored sore" of the sleeping knight, is challenged by one of her companions:

"Faith! we the fairest knight have found
That ever lady's arms enwound,
Or ever lady's kisses crowned;
Myself can wish no royaller lover." . . .
"Nay! Think you then to choose for him,"
Quoth Eastland's queen, "while shadows dim
          His sheeny eyelids cover?"     (2.36-42)

But the question of choice is not as simple as distinctions between sleeping and waking or freedom and force. The "shadows" which dim Launcelot's sleep have their counterparts in his waking consciousness, and the prison to which the queens carry him has its counterpart in his bondage to Guinevere. What Roberts conveys here is the ambiguity which clouds all choice in a world where motives remain ultimately obscure and realities shift place with illusions. When Launcelot awakes to see a dragon looming over him he touches the ring which he trusts "to put to flight / All lying visions" — to no avail. Only slowly does he understand that "no glamour 'tis, nor painted dream / But oak all carved with cunning care" (3.12-13). Our fallible perceptions mix up our sense of nature and art, just as the setting sun indiscriminately gilds the landscape as well as the tower which holds the knight. As readers we may feel that such ambiguities take a further twist with the reference to "storied" tapestries in the tower chamber: "yellow satins, garnished / With legends wrought across" (3.19-20).

     Neither these ambiguities nor the devices which present them will be new to readers of Hamlet or of postmodern novels. Some readers may be surprised to discover them among the earliest work of a Confederation poet. As the narrative continues through Launcelot's defiance of his captors, his agreement with the maidservant, and his escape, some things become clearer. First, the "magic" of the four queens is associated with an art which counterfeits nature; there is, for instance, the awning under which they ride, "of silk, all green, and bordered fair / With mystic-symbolled broidery" (2.10-11). Second, the "truth" through which Launcelot breaks their spell is associated not only with Guinevere but also with the vital green of nature, which laughs "in primal sympathy" and lavishes her freshness upon him when he regains his freedom.

     "What Magic makes Truth mars," runs the line in Part 5 which we might take to crystallize the theme of the poem. Yet we would be wrong, considering its larger design and particularly the characterization of Launcelot. This narrative dramatizes nothing so simple as the truimph of truth over falsehood or virtue over vice. In Launcelot's devotion to Guinevere lies his self-knowledge and proof against sorcery. But of what does this devotion consist? We are told plainly at the real centre of the poem in Launcelot's song, which begins conventionally enough as a pretty Iyric of tender longing, undergoes a startling modulation, and ends thus:

  "Hearken, Guinevere!
  Magic potenter
Than hath brought me to this plight
  Hath thy bosom's stir;
Subtler witchery
  Hath thy whispering,
To make me foul before my God
  And false unto my king,
                              Guinevere."      (3.69-77)

Launcelot is indeed "the fairest knight" but he is also an errant knight in more than one sense, and Robertst poem is full of hints about his corruption. There is the curious fact that his armour is black. There is his agreement with the damsel who releases him which, however courteously spoken, smacks of low bargaining rather than moral courage. And there is his final vulgar gesture when he turns in his saddle — at a safe distance — to jeer at the "witches." Roberts has written not a lesson about the power of Truth, but a parable about the paradoxes of human life. His Launcelot is at once fair and foul, enlightened and duped, bound and free. "Launcelot and the Four Queens" is a splendid reworking of the Arthurian episode: not a parody, but the sort of lightly ironic treatment of romance which Tennyson just missed bringing off in The Princess.

     "Memnon," the next mythological narrative in Orion and Other Poems, follows several intervening Iyrics. Roberts is virtually original in taking for his central figure the Trojan ally slain by Achilles and commemorated at Egyptian Thebes by a great statue said to produce a mournful sound when struck by the rays of the rising sun.31   If Memnon was an unfashionable protagonist, however, his statue was a continuing object of interest to Victorian travellers and Egyptologists, and he often appears incidentally in eighteenth and nineteenth-century verse.32   In 1855 Bulfinch observed that "the vocal statue of Memnon is a favorite subject of allusion with the poets," and cited as an instance lines from Erasmus Darwin.33  There are several such allusions by Tennyson, which I note because in "Memnon" Roberts emulates Tennyson's characteristic treatment of myth.34

     The structure of Roberts' poem is identical to that of Tennyson's "Œnone"(1832): a few introductory stanzas provide the setting for a long monologue in which the protogonist addresses a lament, in a refrain, to his mother, recalling past happiness and the events which have brought present woe. The traveller who appears in the opening stanzas supplies a viewpoint, which we are invited to share: as dawn rises over the Eygptian desert he is startled by the sound that breaks from the prostrate, half-buried statue. We are given a vivid picture, reminiscent of Shelley's "Ozymandias," of desolate reaches of rock, sand, and palm, strewn with the rubble of ancient idols. These ruins, with their aura of vast periods of time gone by, are echoed in the account of Troy's fall which the statue of Memnon gives in the ensuing monologue. In an effective manipulation of perspective and a finely condensed image, Memnon's spirit looks back on the origins of the Trojan catastrophe, to "the fatal Spartan woman wed / To Troy in flames" (77-78).

     The suggestion that Memnon's soul is imprisoned in the statue, and that his mother is somehow responsible, is Roberts' idea. In most versions of the myth the "immortality" Aurora obtains for her son is identified with the Memnonides, birds which arise from his funeral pyre and reappear annually. Roberts' interest, however, is in representing the despair which issues from the decaying stone image, and it is this which links his work closely with another Tennyson poem. In Greek mythology Memnon is Aurora's son by Tithonus, and his plight as Roberts pictures it closely corresponds to the plight of his father in Tennyson's "Tithonus" (1860). According to the myth, Aurora obtained from Zeus immortality for her human lover but forgot to ensure his immortal youth. Tennyson's poem memorably shows the despair of a decrepit Tithonus who yearns for death to release him from a shadowy, impotent existence. In Roberts' poem Memnon, like his father, is consigned to a limbo between mortality and immortality. In both monologues the speaker complains to Aurora and contrasts his pitiful condition on the one hand with mortal creatures who take comfort in the prospect of an end to their suffering, on the other with the goddess whose timeless cycle is part of a cosmic order.

     In "Memnon" the statue also emphasizes the disastrous consequences of mingling men and gods. His mixed appeal and rebuke to his mother carries a genuine pathos:

  "Sweet mother, stay; thy son requireth thee!
  All day the sun, with massive, maddening glare,
Beats on my weary brow and tortures me.
  All day the pitiless sand-blasts gnaw and wear
  Deep furrows in my lidless eyes and bare.
All day the palms stand up and mock at me,
  And drop cool shade over the dead bones there,
  And voiceless stones, that crave no canopy;
O beautiful mother, stay; 'tis thy son prayeth thee."      (37-45)

As the tale of a figure tormented by his link to divinity, "Memnon" ironically qualifies the vision of "Orion" and "Ariadne." Indeed the crucial role of the dawn-goddess in both "Memnon" and "Orion" invites us to consider them together; in the shorter poem the four spheres of existence depicted in "Orion" reappear in a melancholy light. In one sense "Memnon" is, like "Tithonus," a parable about the human spirit fated to grieve itself forever, caught between nature and divinity. While Roberts' cultivation of various poetic forms in Orion and Other Poems often appears merely self-conscious, his Spenserian stanzas here seem admirably suited to convey a sense of broad spaces and the long, slow lapse of time.

     In "Sappho", the last and briefest classical narrative in Orion, Roberts made only a mediocre contribution to the voluminous literature on this subject. Scholarly and poetical interest in "the female Homer" and her fragmentary Iyrics had gathered throughout the century and been given impetus in the English-speaking world by Swinburne's Poems and Ballads (1866) and J.A. Symonds' Studies of the Greek Poets (1873-76). The story of Sappho's spurned love for the boatman Phaeon and her suicidal leap from the Leucadian promontory, exploited in poems by Southey, Thomas Moore, and many others, had been challenged by Roberts' time but nonetheless continued a popular theme in verse well into the twentieth century.35  Among Canadian writers the Sappho vogue reached its peak with Bliss Carman's volume of "imaginative reconstructions," Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics (1904), for which Roberts wrote the introduction. There, interestingly enough, Roberts makes a point of criticizing the very legend treated in his poem a quarter century earlier. Sappho's stature, he states, "warrants our regarding the picturesque but scarcely dignified story of her vain pursuit of Phaeon and her frenzied leap from the cliffs of Leucas as nothing more than a poetic myth," albeit "a myth which has begotten some exquisite literature."36

    Roberts' poem of 1880, whatever his intentions, falls short of the exquisite and scarcely avoids the indignity of crude melodrama. The first ninety-odd lines show Sappho on the cliff listening in anguish to Phaeon's song as his boat passes below, and describe her fatal plunge and her body's recovery. The rest of the poem consists of a dirge delivered by a "chorus of Lesbian youth, singing around the funeral pyre." The whole is operatic, uneven, and conventional in marking out the tragic contrast of the vulnerable mortal with her timeless poetry. As for details, fire and flowers are associated with Sappho by tradition, and praise of her as "the tenth muse" descends from an epigram of Plato. The rich colours which abound in her lyrics seem merely gaudy here. As represented by Roberts, perhaps she is the first of the many "drowned poets" in Canadian literature.37

     Apart from their individual merits and defects, the five mythological poems in Orion have a collective importance both thematically and for our assessment of the volume's place in our poetry. As a genuine expression of the mythopoetic impulse, the book does represent a breakthrough. Among Canadian poets, Roberts was the first to make effective use of one of the fundamental creative procedures of the Romantics; that he should echo Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson in realizing the poetic value of myth should be no cause for surprise or deprecation. A look at Sangster's volumes of 1856 and 1860 or Dewart's anthology of 1864 suggests that the primary "myths" of pre-Confederation verse were sentimental and pious cliches more aptly associated with eighteenth-century models. In this respect Roberts brought Canadian poetry into the nineteenth century, and the fact that he did it in the year 1880 only underscores the urgency of his contribution. Over the next twenty years myth assumed various shapes in the poetry of Isabella Valancy Crawford, Archibald Lampman, and Bliss Carman.

     Considered as a sequence, Roberts' mythological narratives reflect an aspect of his imagination pertinent to his subsequent career as a writer: a deepening sense of life as bounded and problematical. From visons of ultimate fulfilment in the divine rescues of Orion and Ariadne, he moves through Launcelot's ironically qualified rescue to Memnon's permanent bondage and Sappho's despair. While mythological poems are comparatively rare in his later work, it is significant that two of them carry this pattern to its logical end. In total contrast to "Orion" and "Ariadne," which picture tbe protagonists' salvation through their union with divinity, "Actaeon" (1886) and "Marsyas" (1893) deal with the fatal mutilation of their heroes in encounters with the gods. "The Pipes of Pan" (1886) also bears upon this pattern in describing the god's poetic legacy to mankind.38 Pan is a vanished god who is celebrated as a patron of nature poetry, and Roberts' declining enthusiasm for classical myth coincides with his increasing interest in the nature Iyric. This shift in orientation is prefigured in the structure of Orion itself, which ends with several nature poems worth considering in some detail.


First, however, a few words are in order about the other poems in Orion, some seventeen assorted lyrics which intervene (with "Memnon" and "Sappho") between the three long narratives at the beginning and the nature poems at the end. These intervening pieces exhibit an amazing diversity of form and subject while remaining, without exception, thoroughly conventional. In part they represent a bravura trying-out of forms and meters — ballade, rondeau, sonnet, sapphics — and they also play upon half a dozen styles or themes fashionable at various times in the nineteenth century or earlier. At the same time they do contribute to the larger design of Orion and Other Poems. The classical tone established in the narratives is modified in "Ballad of a Kingfisher," which makes a rather more sportive use of myth. "Iterumne?" and "At Pozzuoli" are models of Romantic Hellenism, the kind of elegiac nostalgia familiar in Byron, Shelley, Arnold, and a host of lesser lights. As Cappon properly remarked, in the former sonnet Roberts "seems to breathe a mournful farewell to Arcadian legend."39  Toward the end of the volume the two "Miriam" poems, subtitled "sapphics" and "choriambics," are adaptations of classical prosody which probably owe as much to Swinburne as to the classics.

    Swinburne may be the principal inspiration also for "The Flight" and "One Night," which are anomalies not only in Orion but in Roberts' whole oeuvre. They evoke the dark side of Romanticism, its Gothic delineation of pathological mental states and fearful violence, but are not particularly good specimens, lacking the impact and insight of such kindred pieces as Browning's "Porphyria's Lover," Rossetti's "Sister Helen," and Swinburne's "The Leper." Anomalies of a different sort are "Love-Days" and "Amoris Vincula," which reach back beyond the nineteenth century to the Cavalier style of Herrick and Lovelace.40  Also worth noting are the "Ode to Drowsihood" and "Ode to Night," both so redolent of the stanzas, music, and imagery of Keats's odes as to approach pastiche. Roberts was fond of the former poem, reprinting it in 1901 and again in 1936. Undeniably "derivative stuff," these various lyrics nevertheless convey a certain ebullience and panache. It is almost as though Roberts was determined to make up at a dash poetic ground which Canadian writers had largely ignored.

    Beyond these pieces, there are a few poems which, with "Orion," "Launcelot," and "Memnon," comprise the core of real achievement in Roberts'first book. The final six lyrics form a distinct group in turning from classical themes toward Roberts' own milieu. One, "The Shannon and the Chesapeake," a ballad on an engagement of the War of 1812, foreshadows his interest in patriotic and Imperialist verse. Three are nature poems, and the last two, "Epistle to W. Bliss Carman" and "Dedication," reflect Roberts' poetic values in the light of his personal relations. The best poems in this group animate their conventions with perspective and intelligence.

     Though Orion contains a surprisingly small proportion of the nature poetry which we have come to think of as characteristic of the Confederation poets, some of the volume's best lyrics are among the nature poems at the end. The weakest of these is "The Maple," which Roberts himself urged J.E. Wetherell not to include in Later Canadian Poems (1893) "as I don't like the technique of it."41   Wetherell did use "A Blue Blossom," which is a more interesting poem although it begins unpromisingly enough as a late entry in a tradition hackneyed at this point in the nineteenth century. A humble wildflower inspires an epiphany which illuminates the universe: "A flash, a momentary gleam, / A glimpse of some celestial dream." Discovery of profundity in the commonplace and the idea of the privileged moment are familiar enough in Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning. Roberts' lyric, however, becomes a commentary upon this tradition, specifically upon the limitations of the epiphany at the heart of so much Romantic nature poetry. The problem with epiphanies — that they are, by definition, transitory — is one with which Lampman struggled for years but which Roberts recognizes in this very early poem. In the third stanza he rejects the Wordsworthian view of epiphanies as "spots of time" which return from the unconscious to comfort us in distress. For Roberts such moments are not psychological and relative, but glimpses of the pristine glory of the human spirit: "immortal memories / Of some past scenes of Paradise." His conclusion, however, tempers this vision with a strong measure of Victorian perplexity:

Forgotten is our ancient tongue;
    Too dull our ears, our eyes too blind,
    Even quite to catch its notes, or find
Its symbols written bright among
    All shapes of beauty.
    But 'tis hard When one can hear, to be debarred
From knowledge of the meaning sung.

The allusion at the beginning of the stanza is to Matthew 13.13-16, also a favourite passage with Lampman, though Roberts is rather less sanguine than Lampman typically is about the possibility of our rightly understanding the traces of paradise about us.

    Similarly, "To Winter" is more than the obligatory poem on the popular Canadian subject or a mere rehearsal of the seasons convention which descends from classical literature via Pope, Thomson, and Blake. The idea in the opening lines — Winter as both a tyrant commanding hosts of icy warriors and a master artist decorating the landscape — is traditional, as is the language which expresses it. The convention as Roberts develops it is, however, significant in its bearing upon the larger themes of the Orion volume. Winter's art, he suggests, though beautiful, is an inhuman art whose perfection and purity exclude the tumultuous forces which sustain our "mortal-cloaked" existence. The "chastest beauty" of the season freezes up the flowing water which is the basis of all life and banishes the birdsong of "amorous multitudes / Flashing through the dusky woods." Only at night

'Neath the star-sown heavens bright
To thy sin-unchoked ears
Some dim harmonies may pierce
From the high-consulting spheres.      (48-51)

Winter, then, is associated with the incorrupt realm of the spheres — or of Orion's constellation — to which the speaker prefers sublunary life with its plenitude, fertility, and moral difficulty. This preference parallels the movement in Roberts' mythological poems from visions of perfection to the mundane world of choice and suffering, a world which offers, at the end of "To Winter," a "prison'd brightness" nonetheless ample for "gorgeous legend."

     Repudiation of an inauthentic art is also a theme in "Epistle to W. Bliss Carman," which effectively concludes Orion (the "Dedication," unlisted in the Contents, follows). Appropriately, the "Epistle" is the most distinctive and important poem in the book. Roberts employs heroic couplets in the manner of Keats's early verse epistles — which also generally deal with nature, poetry, and the poet's relation to his art — but he succeeds in making this form the vehicle of his own voice and purpose. His success is due not only to the personal and local references in the epistle, but to the craft which his casual tone disguises. The "Epistle" is crucial to our appreciation of Orion, for it reviews issues raised in the course of the volume and states a considered point of view which is also conceived as a starting point.

    The structure of this poem is more complex than may at first appear. The "epistle" is dated September, 1878; the occasion, we eventually discover, is the start of Roberts' final term and Carman's first at university. The poem begins with an elaborate celebration of natural beauty:

An azure splendor floats upon the world.
Around my feet, the blades of grass, impearled
And diamonded, are changing radiantly.
At every step new wonders do I see
Of fleeting sapphire, gold, and amethyst, —
Enchanting magic of the dew sun-kissed.      (1-6)

We may sense a false note here, especially if we recall the sterile "jewel-fretted tapestries" in the winter landscape of the preceding poem. As the epistle unfolds, we see that Roberts intends the falseness and means to imply certain things about nature poetry. It is the method of an immature poet to describe nature as bejewelled, and the superficiality of delineating her beauty this way is conveyed in the opening lines by tension between the fixity of the images and the animated change which is the writer's real theme of praise. In fact the engemmed imagery yields to a lively description of birds and brooks, paralleling the movement of "To Winter." The point is reinforced in the second verse paragraph in a picture of "young firs" which stand "with eager hands" beneath the shedding birch and maples,

And catch the yellow dropping leaves, and hold                  
Them fast, as if they thought them dropping gold;
But fairy gold they'll find them on the morrow,
When their possessing joy has turned to sorrow.      (29-32)

This conceit amounts to a critique of the ornamental method of the opening lines, and in the meantime we have discovered that the present tense of the opening is also illusory. The vision of summer's azure beauty is a memory of the past; the "actual" present finds Roberts on a forest walk through the splendid autumn scene of the passage above. This image of the natural cycle is succeeded by an image of the individual's transience within the social cycle when the writer's ramble brings him to the college terrace, where "future Freshmen stand around and stare."

     An asterisked break in the verse signals another time shift, taking us forward a week as the writer resumes his epistle after an interruption. In the interval he has seen his friend Carman begin

Your happy three-years' course with us, and win
The highest honors, half of which are due
To your own strength of brain, and half accrue
To that wise master from whose hands you came
Equipped to win, and win yourself a name.      (41-45)

A little biographical inquiry will identify the "wise master" as George Parkin, Headmaster of Fredericton Collegiate School, under whose superb tutelage Roberts and Carman prepared to enter the University of New Brunswick. But I think there is another meaning here: the passage presents a view of "influence" appropriate to Roberts' own work as well as that of Carman and the other Confederation poets. As writers, all studied under "wise masters," particularly the English Romantics. In the highly Romantic epistle which concludes his debut in Orion and Other Poems, Roberts tempers the revolutionary element in Romanticism by acknowledging the value of inherited wisdom. This is also the symbolic meaning of his walk up the forest path, not to a mountain summit of solitary revelation, as in so many Romantic poems — "Orion" for one — but to the threshold of his provincial college. His love of nature is no less strong for his recognition of as deep a need for culture.

     The path is the controlling image of the poem, first as the woodland trail through summer's splendour in the opening section, next as the symbolic path up the wooded hillside, then as a metaphor of Roberts' uncertain future as he contemplates "many ways, all cheerless" which lie beyond his senior year: "But one path leads from out my very feet, — / The only one which lures me . . . ." This one path is poetry, and the rest of the epistle elaborates Roberts' view of its possibilities. His subjunctive phrasing ("might I follow it") conveys his sense of the vocation as a privileged one. His exalted view of poetry is quintessentially Romantic; happily, he avoids false rhetoric through maintaining his casual epistolary tone and simple language. Briefly, he links the poet's calling to "childhood's brightest dreams" and reaffirms the double value of poetry long hallowed by its defenders: ideally, it both delights and enlightens us. It is even more vital, then, in the modern world where God has been proclaimed dead and our pain has become the more insupportable with our loss of faith. Yet, Roberts avers, those who despair of a divine element in our destiny lack the vision which poets sustain despite their involvement in human suffering:

                                               Though now and then
My songs were wailings from the midst of men,
Yet would I deem that it were ever best
To sing them out of weariness to rest;
Yet would I cheer them, sharing in their ills,
Weaving them dreams of waves, and skies, and hills;
Yet would I sing of Peace, and Hope, and Truth,
Till softly o'er my song should beam the youth, —
The morning of the world.     (86-94)

An apocalyptic dawn, and the creation of a golden age: these are the ultimate aspirations of the Romantic enterprise as Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley conceived it. In full awareness of human misery, the Romantic poet attempts to heal the shattered spiritual life of humanity, and an integral part of this work is the celebration of his earthly habitation. In his postscript to the epistle, Roberts reinforces the ordinary tone which imparts conviction to this extraordinary hope. Rather disingenuously he denies having followed any "thread" in his letter and asks Carman to excuse its flaws. His final couplet, though, could serve as a motto for Romantic poetry in general: "Scan not its outer, but its inner part; / 'Twas not the head composed it, but the heart."

     The movement of the "Epistle" from a brilliantly coloured landscape to a vision of dawn parallels the movement of "Orion," and certain details also recall the longer poem. During the summer walk remembered in the epistle's opening section, Roberts' path leads him to a bridge of logs

                          whose well-worn barkless look
Tells of the many black-gown-shadowed feet
Which tread them daily     (14-16)

This image corresponds to the black footprints on the strand in the induction to "Orion," but with a meaning which is virtually contrary. Here the traces of human presence are propitious, not sinister: they signify the traditions of a place which has fostered the writer's growth and hope for the future. Rather than heralding an absolute estrangement from humanity, as in "Orion," the footmarks which Roberts notes in his epistle foreshadow a renewed devotion to his community, both local and universal. In 1880 such an affirmation might well carry more conviction in the new Dominion than in the disillusioned and enervated literary atmosphere of Europe.

    The fact that the "Epistle" is addressed to Carman has, for us, special meaning as an augury of the joint enterprise and achievement of the Confederation poets in Canada. Roberts' emphasis on the importance of his heritage is equally significant. In his memoir of Carman a half century later he expressed the same sense of continuity in recalling their youth when, under Parkin's spell, "the austere fir-clad slopes would transform themselves before us into the soft green Cumnor Hills, and the roofs and spires of Fredericton, far below, embowered in her rich elms, would seem to us the ivied towers of Oxford."42 This lovely reminiscence could be construed as "colonial" only in ignorance of Roberts' life and work. In fact the structure of his first book reflects the reorientation he felt his poetry required in the services of an embryonic Canadian literature. In the "Dedication" which concludes Orion he offers to his father "these first-fruits" of an imagination "ripened beside the tide-vext river, — / The broad, ship-laden Miramichi." For all his emphasis on classical subjects, he acknowledges that "no Theban bees" inspired his music and that much of his book deals with "alien matters in distant regions":

Yet of some worth in thine eyes be they,
For bare mine innermost heart they lay;
    And the old, firm love that I bring thee with them
Distance shall quench not, nor time bewray.

Considered singly, the poems in Orion hardly seem to support Roberts' claim that they reveal his deepest feelings; considered as a sequence, they do map out his fundamental commitments. It is appropriate, then, that the volume's last words, subscribed to the dedication stanzas, register his own time and place: "Fredericton, July, 1880."

    The standard criticism of Roberts, first made by Cappon in 1905, and echoed many times since, is that his work lacks any real centre. Recently this judgement was angrily attacked in an article by Robin Matthews, then defended in an essay by W.J. Keith, the principal target of Matthews' displeasure.43  Neither party is persuasive in dealing with an issue which could be properly addressed only in a lengthy critical study. The unity of Orion, however, makes me suspect that Roberts' work has been underestimated. There are other kinds of coherence than that of a fixed intellectual system, and I think that it is precisely a dynamic integrity which Orion displays. The general design of Roberts' book is clear: his focus passes from antiquity to the present, from Europe to maritime Canada, from mythology to personal circumstances, and from transcendent vision to a naturalistic view. He moves, that is, toward the meanings of "The Tantramar Revisited," the Songs of the Common Day, and the animal stories. If Romantic mythmaking implies faith in the imagination as the agent of human freedom, Roberts' later work implies his growing respect for the imperatives of biology, history, and circumstance in our lives. But his attitude remains complex. The naturalism which gradually gathers force through the sequence of narrative and lyric poems in Orion is qualified in the memorable epistle which re-affirms Romantic values, "Peace, and Hope, and Truth. . . ." There is no inconsistency here but a recognition of what mature vision involves. As it proceeds through its several movements toward its resolution and coda, Orion and Other Poems turns away from old-world glories toward the new-world radiance of the first prominent era in our poetry.


  1. Lampman's tribute to Orion was part of a lecture delivered in Ottawa on February 19, 1891. It was quoted by Duncan Campbell Scott in the introductionto his selection of Lampman, Lyrics of Earth, Sonnets and Ballads (Toronto: Musson, 1925), pp. 8-9. Later it was published in context in "Two Canadian Poets: A Lecture, 1891," with a Prefatory Note by E.K. Brown, University of Toronto Quarterly, 13 (1944), 406-23; rpt. in Masks of Poetry, Canadian Critics on Canadian Verse, ed. A.J.M. Smith (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1962), pp. 26-44. I cite the latter source. [back]

  2. Rose-Belford's Canadian Monthly and National Review, 5 (1880), 553. I have turned up only one other review: an unenthusiastic notice in the New York Nation, 33 (1881), 477. Contrary to a common opinion, it appears that Orion's celebrity was not established upon publication, but grew with Roberts' reputation during the 'eighties and 'nineties.[back]

  3. A Critical Edition of the Complete Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, ed. Desmond Pacey and Graham Adams, announced by The Wombat Press, Wolfville, Nova Scotia.[back]

  4. "Prefatory Note" to Selected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts (Toronto: Ryerson, 1936), p. vii. Roberts was even harder on Orion three years earlier (March, 1933) in an address on Canadian verse delivered at a testimonial dinner in Toronto. Evidently embarrassed by the book's reputation, and with decidedly changed poetic interests, he dismissed his youthful work as " distinctly derivative, and without significance" — except for its craftsmanship and its influence upon the careers of Lampman and Carman. This address has been published as "Canadian Poetry in its Relation to the Poetry of England and America," Introduced by D.M.R. Bentley, Canadian Poetry, 3 (Fall/ Winter, 1978), 76-86.[back]

  5. See James Cappon, Charles G.D. Roberts and the Influence of His Times (1905; rpt. Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1975), pp. 8-10; and A.M. Stephen, "The Poetry of Charles G.D. Roberts," Queen's Quarterly, 36 (1929), 52-53.[back]

  6. For instance Desmond Pacey, Ten Canadian Poets (Toronto: Ryerson, 1958), pp. 44-46; Roy Daniells, "Lampman and Roberts," in Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, ed. Carl F. Klinck et al., 2d ed., 3 vols. (1965; rpt. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), 1, 418-21; W.J. Keith, ed., Selected Poetry and Critical Prose, by Charles G.D. Roberts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), pp. xx-xxi.[back]

  7. John Lesperanee, "The Poets of Canada," Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 1st Ser.,2 (1884), Section II, p. 43; Cappon, p. 10.[back]

  8. "A Choice of Worlds: God, Man and Nature in Charles G.D. Roberts," in Colony and Confederation: English Canadian Poets and Their Background, ed. George Woodcock (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press,1974), pp. 90-91.[back]

  9. "Memnon" and "Ode to Drowsihood" in Scribner's Monthly, 18 (1879), 218-20, and 19 (1879), 140-41; "The Shannon and the Chesapeake" in Canadian Illustrated News, 20 (1879), 222; "Iterumne?" and "Ballad of the Poet's Thought" in Rose-Belford's Canadian Monthly and National Review, 4 (1880),118 and 375.[back]

  10. On Roberts' family heritage and excellent formal education, see Desmond Pacey, "Sir Charles G.D. Roberts`" in Our Living Tradition, ed. Robert L. McDougall, 4th Ser. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,1962), pp. 31-56.[back]

  11. See Charles G.D. Roberts, "Bliss Carman," Dalhousie Review, 9 (1930),410.[back]

  12. E.M. Pomeroy, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, a Biography (Toronto: Ryerson, 1943), pp. 38-39.[back]

  13. Cappon, p. 6.[back]

  14. See Endymion 2.198; "Sleep and Poetry," 334-36; "Hyperion" 2.371-78.[back]

  15. Charles G.D. Roberts, Orion and Other Poems (Philadelphia: Lippineott, 1880), p. 9. I cite the original edition throughout my discussion; line numbers specified for the longer poems are by my own count.[back]

  16. Pomeroy, pp. 38-39.[back]

  17. Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry (1937; rpt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,1969), p. 399. Bush's Appendix provides a register of mythological poems in English and American literature from 1681 to 1936. See also Helen H. Laws, Bibliography of Greek Myth in English Poetry, rev. (Folcroft, Penn.: Folcroft Press,1955).[back]

  18. "A Choice of Worlds," p. 91.[back]

  19. See Bush, pp. 279-84; and Erie Partridge, "Introduction" to Orion, by R.H. Horne (London: Seholartis Press, 1928), pp. xi-xxxvii. I cite the tenth edition, Orion: An Epic Poem in Three Books, with a "Brief Commentary," by Richard Hengist Horne (London: Chatto and Windus, 1874).[back]

  20. Some minor similarities: Roberts' climactic line, "[He] gave his heart up straightway unto love" (433), corresponds to Horne's semi-refrain in Bk. 1, "He felt 'twas love" (pp. 16, 25), the image of footprints in the sand near the opening of "Orion" (24), occurs twice in Orion: An Epic Poem (pp. 52, 57); Roberts' lines on Orion's release from torment when Eos appears (429-33), resemble — and improve upon — Horne's lines on the same meeting (p. 121). See note 28.[back]

  21. Horne, p. v.[back]

  22. "Preface" to Prometheus Unbound.[back]

  23. See Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757); and consider the song in Tennyson's The Princess: "Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height / . . . for Love is of the valley . . . "[back]

  24. Keith, "A Choice of Worlds," notes the distinction "between wild creatures and the natural world," but infers only that "wild creatures are unquestionably enemies" (p. 90).[back]

  25. The motif is further developed when Orion's bruised feet (359-60) take him to the peak from which he and Eos will travel with "swift feet" (436) over the sea to Delos.[back]

  26. In some versions of the myth Œnopion's delayed consent prompts Orion's attempt to seize Merope by force, thereby provoking the king's retaliation. Other accounts, like Roberts', leave Œnopion's hostility unexplained. Horne attributes the king's treachery to his fear of Orion's strength (p. 56).[back]

  27. This episode is the subject of Poussin's famous painting of Orion. See also William Hazlitt's essay "On a Landscape of Nicholas Poussin," in Table-Talk (1821).[back]

  28. Compare Horne, pp. 121-22:

    The turmoil he had known, the late distress
    By loss of passion's object, and of sight,
    Were now exchanged for these serene delights
    Of contemplation, as the influence
    That Eos wrought around for ever, dawned
    Upon his vision and his inmost heart,
    In sweetness and success.[back]

  29. Among other obvious parallels, Circe represents a demonic power in both works, and the celebration in Poseidon's realm at the end of "Orion" is reminiscent of the procession and revelry of revived lovers in Neptune's palace at the end of Endymion, Bk. 3.[back]
  30. Charles G.D. Roberts (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1969), p. 31.[back]

  31. For possible sources see Apollodorus, Library 3.12.4, Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.576 Lempriere, Bulfinch, etc. There is a short lyric on Memnon in Bulwer Lytton's Poems (1855).[back]

  32. See "The Statue of Memnon," Quarterly Review, 138 (1875), 529-40; reprinted the same year in Littell's Living Age (Boston) and the Eclectic Magazine (New York).[back]

  33. The Age of Fable; or, Stories of Gods and Heroes (Boston: Sanborn, Carter, and Bazin, 1855), p. 284.[back]

  34. Among Tennyson's poems in the editions which Roberts is likely to have known, allusions to Memnon appear in "The Palace of Art," 171, and The Princess 3.116.[back]

  35. The primary classical source of the Phaeon story is Ovid, Heroides 21, which Pope included among his youthful translations. The legend was called in question not long before Roberts used it, by Edwin Arnold, the Poets of Greece (1869), and T.W. Higginson, "Sappho," Atlantic Monthly, 28 (1871), 83-93. See David M. Robinson, Sappho and Her Influence (1924; rpt. New York: Cooper Square,1963).[back]

  36. "Introduction" to Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics, by Bliss Carman (1904; rpt. London: Chatto and Windus, 1921), p. xi.[back]

  37. Milton Wilson discusses this archetype as it appears in Roberts' "Ave! An Ode for the Centenary of Shelley's Birth" (1892), in "Klein's Drowned Poet: Canadian Variations on an Old Theme," Canadian Literature, 6 (Autumn, 1960), 5-17. Like his "Ave!", Roberts' "Sappho" is distinctly Shelleyan in language, and its unusual verse form might be an adaptation of Shelley's form in "The Cloud": it is as though Roberts simply converts Shelley's internally rhymed tetrameters to dimeter couplets.[back]

  38. See D.M.R. Bentley, "Pan and the Confederation Poets," Canadian Literature, 81 (Summer, 1979), 59-71.[back]

  39. Cappon, p. 10.[back]

  40. Roberts credited the inspiration of "Amoris Vineula," written in late 1876, to "'a poem of Charles Pelham Mulvaney, which had appeared in the Canadian Magazine, and whose haunting cadences stayed with me for days"'(Pomeroy, p. 26). The prior or common influence of Lovelace seems fairly obvious.[back]

  41. Roberts to J.E. Wetherell, 14 Dec. 1892; cited in Pomeroy, p. 125.[back]

  42. "Bliss Carman," p. 413.[back]

  43. Robin Matthews, "Charles G.D. Roberts and the Destruction of the Canadian Imagination," Journal of Canadian Fiction, 1 (1972), 47-56, revised as "Charles G.D. Roberts: Father of Canadian Poetry," in Robin Matthews, Canadian Literature: Surrender or Revolution, ed. Gail Dexter (Toronto: Steel Rail, 1978); Keith, "A Choice of Worlds."[back]